Commentary Magazine


Hagel Sits on Board of Oil Company Accused of Human Rights Violations

Much of the criticism of Chuck Hagel has focused on his positions on Iran and Israel, and his offensive comments about a gay ambassador. But he also has a troubling record on environmental and human rights issues–and not just based on his votes in the Senate. After leaving elected office in 2009, he joined the board of the Chevron Corporation, an oil company that has been criticized for outreach to Iran’s oil sector and other authoritarian regimes, and its involvement in environmental catastrophes like the recent Campos Basin spill.

Hagel joined the board in the spring of 2010, when Chevron was reportedly in negotiations with the repressive government in Turkmenistan. Shortly after, Hagel was confronted about this at a shareholder meeting by an environmentalist group called Crude Accountability. 

“Senator Hagel, as a new board member, you have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to raise the bar for corporate responsibility in the Caspian to a level that is in accordance with the Chevron Way, for starters, but more importantly, in accordance with international law and practice,” said Crude Accountability’s Michelle Kinman, according to a statement posted on the group’s website. “Senator Hagel, are you prepared to insist that your company take a principled stance in favor of human rights in Turkmenistan today?”

According to Crude Accountability, Hagel did not respond to the question:

Senator Hagel was not given the opportunity to respond to this question.  Instead, Chevron CEO John Watson encouraged Crude Accountability to write to Senator Hagel at a later time.  In his response, Mr. Watson confirmed that Chevron is in negotiations with Turkmenistan, adding that “I think we can do some good in Turkmenistan” even though “we may not meet your standards”. 

No word yet on whether Crude Accountability followed up with a letter, or whether Hagel wrote back. I contacted the organization and will post when I get a reply. But according to Reuters, Chevron was still pursuing a deal to develop Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves as recently as last month.

This isn’t the first time the company has been criticized for its involvement with repressive regimes. A 2010 report by the NGO EarthRights International accused Chevron of being complicit in human rights violations in Burma, including the death of workers on its natural-gas pipeline. Other NGOs have also cited the company for involvement in human rights abuses in Ecuador.

Yet Hagel continued to sit on the company’s board. When you couple this with his opposition to Iran sanctions, a pattern emerges. Throughout his career, Hagel has shown a disturbing indifference to authoritarian regimes and human rights violators, and there’s no reason to think he’d change if he’s nominated for defense secretary.